He's back in his 6,000-square-foot English Tudor country-style estate now, sitting cross-legged and barefoot on a living room sofa, slowly fingering some Buddhist prayer beads and listening to Mozart. When he speaks, his tone — soft and unhurried — is as serene as the setting.
But Rubin, 43, doesn't stick to playing against type. He's made some extraordinarily tender recordings, most notably Johnny Cash's painfully introspective version of "Hurt," which stands for young rock fans as an even more definitive work than "Folsom Prison Blues." A trailblazer who helped define the sound of modern hip-hop, he was also responsible for Jay-Z's "99 Problems," one of the most wickedly funny rap hits of recent years.
In tonight's Grammy competition, Rubin is up for producer of the year for the fifth time. Though he hasn't won previously, he is the favorite this time because he worked on three of the five collections that are nominated for album of the year. He was sole producer on the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dixie Chicks albums and did one track on Justin Timberlake's CD.
He's such a major presence in the industry that Columbia Records has offered him co-chairmanship of the label, which would add immense credibility to the company in the competition for quality artists. Rubin is considering the move, but no decision has been made, says someone close to him.
Whatever the project or musical style, Rubin enters it with the same goal: Create an easy, reassuring atmosphere that encourages collaboration and experimentation. He thinks of himself as a coach, but you could just as easily call him a counselor or therapist.
It's not hard to see why artists feel comfortable — even safe — with the man known as the gentle guru of pop. Sit with him for even a few minutes and the tension drains from your body, which is unusual in someone in the hyperactive music business, where urgency is invariably the prevailing mood.
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Rubin Rule No. 1 in the studio: Relax.
"You and the band have to believe what you are doing together is the most important thing in the world," he says. "But you never want them to think that what they are doing today is the most important. You don't want them to ever think, 'Oh my God, I have to get it right today or else.' "
Rule No. 2: Keep an open mind.
"It's one of the things we talk about at the beginning of a project: 'Let's try every idea and see where it takes us, not prejudge it.' Sometimes it still comes up where someone in the band makes a suggestion and part of me says, 'That's a bad idea. Let's not waste time on that.' I stop myself and think, 'Let's try it and see what it sounds like,' and very often it sounds good."
Though Rubin also has a home in the hills above the Sunset Strip, he finds himself spending more and more time here because of the ocean's calming influence. "I think the act of creation is a spiritual act," he says softly, looking out his picture window at the Pacific. "The more involved we are with nature and the spiritual side of life, the more it seems to have a good effect on creativity.
"Think about how seeing the sunset can take your breath away. That's the same feeling I get when I hear a beautiful line in a song or a great guitar solo. I don't think great songs stem from us. They are just kind of in the universe. The best artists are the ones with the best antennae that draw it in, and meditation helps get rid of tension and tune into the ideas that are out there."
Yet even his meditation, rules and great bedside manner don't guarantee things always turn out the way Rubin wants.
Asked about disappointments in the studio, he mentions a veteran British superstar whose band continues to fill stadiums around the world.
Rubin knew the Englishman was used to calling the shots, and he only agreed to produce the solo album after being assured that the artist would keep writing until he and Rubin agreed they had enough good songs for an album.
Early in the process, however, the singer played a song for Rubin and waited for a reaction. Rubin said he liked it, but thought the rocker could do better.
"Well, his face fell," Rubin recalls. "It was probably the first time someone criticized his work in 30 years. I could tell at that point it was going to be an ego-driven project, not a music-driven project."